The Carmelites (Dialogues des Carmélites) synopsis
Music by Francis Poulenc
Libretto by Ernest Lavery after Georges Bernanos and Gertrude von le Fort
First performed: 1957
- The library of the Marquis de la Force, April 1789
The Chevalier de la Force bursts in to his father’s library, anxious as to the whereabouts of his sister, Blanche. There are mobs on the roads and reports of Blanche’s carriage being surrounded. The Chevalier is concerned with his sister’s mental as well as physical wellbeing, but his father makes light of his worries.
Blanche arrives, unharmed but disturbed by her experience. She retires to her room. A cry of terror is heard and Thierry, the valet, admits that his shadow on the wall has frightened Blanche, who returns and announces her intention to become a nun.
- The parlour of the Carmelite convent at Compiègne
The elderly Prioress, Madame de Croissy, questions Blanche about her vocation. She warns her that the convent is not a refuge from the world outside. The Order’s sole object is prayer, and Blanche will face difficult trials. Blanche’s resolve remains unshaken by this interview and she announces the Carmelite name she has chosen: Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ.
- Inside the convent
Blanche has entered the convent as a novice. She and a young nun, Sister Constance of Saint-Denis, are taking in provisions. Constance chatters on about her happy early life in her village. Blanche rebukes her for her cheerful good humour at a time when the Prioress is dying. Constance suggests that they pray, offering their own lives in exchange for their Prioress’s. Blanche is appalled, but Constance declares that she has always felt she would die young and that when she first met Blanche she had a premonition they would die together.
- The infirmary
The Prioress lies on her deathbed, attended by Mother Marie. For the Prioress, God has become a shadow; all her previous contemplation of death is of no use to her now and she feels alone, unprepared and without consolation. She has great concern for Blanche and entrusts her to the care of Mother Marie. Blanche enters and the Prioress tenderly bids farewell to her newest postulant, enjoining her not to despise herself but to entrust her honour to God’s keeping. Mother Marie returns with the doctor who refuses the Prioress more medicine. As her death agony increases, the Prioress becomes delirious, cries out against God and has a vision of the convent chapel desecrated. Blanche returns to the room to witness the Prioress die in terror.
- The chapel, at night
Blanche and Constance keep vigil over the body of the Prioress. Their watch ends and Constance goes to fetch the sisters who are to replace them. Left alone, Blanche is terrified and attempts to leave. Mother Marie calms her.
- The garden
Blanche and Constance have been making a cross of flowers for the Prioress’s tomb. Constance suggests that we die not for ourselves but for others. Perhaps the Prioress has died in distress and fear in order that someone else may die easily.
- The chapter room
The new Prioress, Madame Lidoine, arrives and addresses the Carmelites. She warns them that their days of peaceful security are over and that the future will be full of trials. She reminds them their most important duty is prayer and that they should not aspire to martyrdom. Mother Marie leads them in the Ave Maria.
- A room in the convent
The Prioress, Mother Marie and Constance rush in to the sound of a bell ringing. The Revolution is gathering momentum and the Chevalier de la Force has decided to leave France and needs to see Blanche. The Prioress permits brother and sister to meet, in the presence of Mother Marie.
- The parlour
The Chevalier tries to persuade Blanche to leave the convent. Their father no longer believes it to be a safe place for her: as a member of the aristocracy and a nun she is in grave danger from the encroaching Terror. The Chevalier believes it is fear – or the fear of fear – that keeps her in the convent. Blanche declares herself dependent on God’s will and reiterates her intention to remain. After the Chevalier leaves, Blanche’s strength evaporates. Mother Marie urges her to have courage.
- The sacristy
The Chaplain of the convent has been forbidden to perform his duties by the civil authorities and is taking his leave of the Carmelites. Mother Marie declares that to preserve the Church the Carmelites have only to give their lives. But the Prioress corrects her: it is not for the sisters to decide whether they are to become martyrs or not. The Chaplain returns, seeking refuge from the mob and the soldiers outside the convent. The Commissioners enter with the order from the Legislative Assembly to expel the nuns from the convent. The Prioress leaves for Paris. Seeing Blanche’s terror, Mother Jeanne gives her a plaster figure of the infant Jesus to comfort her. Startled by the baying of the mob, Blanche drops the figure, breaking it.
- The chapel
The chapel is now devastated. In the absence of the Prioress, Mother Marie is responsible for the community. She proposes they take the vow of martyrdom. In a secret vote there is one dissenter: although Blanche is suspected, Constance announces it was she who voted against and asks to change her mind. The sisters take the vow. Blanche’s courage fails her and she flees.
- A street outside the convent
The Prioress has returned from Paris. An Officer addresses the Carmelites: their community is outlawed and he welcomes them as new citizens of the Republic. The Prioress sends a warning to the Chaplain that it will be too dangerous to say Mass. Mother Marie questions if it is possible to reconcile such caution with their vow of martyrdom.
- The library of the Marquis de la Force
Blanche’s father has been guillotined and she returns to his house. Mother Marie arrives to take her back to the convent. Blanche is too afraid to leave. Mother Marie gives her an address where she will be safe.
- The Conciergerie
The Carmelites have been arrested and are imprisoned in the Conciergerie. The Prioress takes the vow of martyrdom. Constance has dreamt that the absent Blanche will return to her sisters. The gaoler delivers the judgement of the Revolutionary Tribunal: the Carmelites are condemned to death.
- A street near the Bastille
Mother Marie learns from the Chaplain of the Carmelites’ death sentence and resolves to rejoin her sisters. The priest points out that God may have another destiny for her.
- Place de la Révolution, 17 July 1794
The Carmelites are brought to the place of execution, watched by a crowd. Led by the Prioress, they mount the scaffold one by one, singing the Salve Regina. Constance is the last to ascend. As she does so, Blanche steps from the crowd to join her friend.
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